Coinbase is among the most popular platforms for trading and storing crypto-assets, whose mission is “to create an open financial system for the world” by enabling customers to trade cryptocurrencies. Its platform serves both as a search and discovery engine for crypto assets. The company makes money primarily through fees earned for the transactions processed through the platform, custodial services offered, interest, and subscriptions.
- The evolution of the Coinbase platform
- Value Model
- Value propositions
- Technological Model: Core Technology and R&D Management
- Distribution Model and Go-to-market strategy
- Financial Model
- Cost Structure
- Cash Generation
- Putting it all together
The evolution of the Coinbase platform
How Coinbase evolved over the years in terms of products and services offered (Image Source: Coinbase S-1).
In 2012, as a simple crypto exchange platform, Coinbase evolved over the years as a trading platform. And it is completing its evolution in the coming decade as a “digital bank” where crypto-assets can be deposited to earn interests, exchanged, or perhaps lent and borrowed.
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Coinbase’s primary value model moves along the digitalization of the financial system. The web’s first waves had brought leaps of digitalization of many fields; the financial system wasn’t much affected. While new companies like PayPal tried to create a sort of digital currency. The system never changed toward the decentralization of money, where banks could be disintermediated.
Coinbase, together with the whole Blockchain industry, found its most compelling potential applications, decentralizing money. For the sake of that, Coinbase has become one of the most known brands that enable a broad base of retail users to exchange, transact and earn in crypto assets.
As Coinbase’s founder, Brian Armstrong, highlighted in the first shareholder letter “Coinbase is a company with an ambitious vision: to create more economic freedom for every person and business.”
As he further highlighted “Everyone deserves access to financial services that can help empower them to create a better life for themselves and their families.”
Therefore, Coinbase claims to be “building the cryptoeconomy – a more fair, accessible, efficient, and transparent financial system for the internet age that leverages crypto assets: digital assets built using blockchain technology.“
The company started in 2012 after Coinbase’s co-founders had read the Bitcoin White Paper from Satoshi Nakamoto.
From there, the idea of enabling wider adoption of cryptocurrencies (headed by Bitcoin) has become the main driver for Coinbase’s growth. Indeed, Coinbase’s revenues are also tied to the price/adoption of cryptocurrencies. Therefore, its long-term success does depend on that.
Coinbase’s mission is “to create an open financial system for the world.”
As the company further highlighted in its financial prospectus, “the way that we invest, spend, save, and generally manage our money remains cumbersome, inaccessible, expensive, and regionally isolated. In contrast, the internet has transformed our society by connecting the world and enabling the seamless exchange of information. The legacy financial system is struggling to keep pace with the speed of technological advancements in a global and digitally interconnected society, resulting in the need for a new, natively digital financial system.”
Coinbase enables anyone to transact cryptocurrencies. The trading/investing platform has been integrating the most popular Blockchain protocols and dozens of crypto assets over time, either for trading or custody. Therefore, Coinbase’s value proposition moves along two main services: investing (the ability to purchase dozens of crypto assets) and depositing (the ability to store over ninety crypto assets by the time of Coinbase’s IPO).
Coinbase tapped into the financial system’s decentralization, which was the primary pay-off/use case that Bitcoin leveraged. From there, exchange platforms like Coinbase were instrumentals to the initial success of Bitcoin.
Indeed, while initially mining Bitcoin could be done by anyone, once more people joined the network unless you had a mining facility*. Therefore, exchange platforms became fundamental to the success of Bitcoin. And legendary platforms like Mt. Gox (the first exchange platform that went bankrupt in 2014) became instrumental to Bitcoin’s major success.
*Quick note: the mining process is the process of generating more Bitcoins. However, when Satoshi Nakamoto designed the Blockchain protocol for Bitcoin, it placed some limitations to the number of Bitcoin that could circulate in the long-run (once it reached 21 million Bitcoin in circulation, no more could be mined). At the same time, the more Bitcoin circulated, the more mining them became difficult. Indeed, miners needed more computing power to solve the complex mathematical problems required to be rewarded new Bitcoins (this is known as proof of work, and it is the mechanism at the basis of Bitcoin’s Blockchain). Therefore, while in the early
Mt. Gox Failure, Coinbase’s Success
It is worth exploring, in a nutshell, the story of Mt. Gox.
When Jed McCaleb, back in 2010 had read about Bitcoin, on a PR release over Slashdot, he was convinced that an exchange would have helped Bitcoin grow, so he set it up on a website he had bought years before for an online magic game called “Magic: The Gathering Online” which would be reused as the domain for Mt. Gox.
Once set up the exchange it quickly picked up, and it became in a short time frame the most successful Bitcoin exchange platform. However, it has shown since the beginning one of the major drawbacks of exchange platforms: security. Where the Blockchain protocol had been designed for security and privacy.
Once people started to exchange Bitcoins via Mt. Gox, two issues came up quickly: one, the identity of Bitcoin holders that through the Blockchain was kept private, would be easily revealed via Mt. Gox. Second, as more people referred to Mt. Gox to store their Bitcoins security problems became a major issue. Indeed, by 2014 Mt. Gox had to file for bankruptcy as a massive number of Bitcoin had been stolen by hackers, thus exposing Mt. Gox to a huge financial liability.
That lesson, extremely expensive for Mt. Gox would become a valuable lesson for all the other crypto platforms that survived.
Coinbase’s services have been modeled around the main customers. Perhaps, retail users can trade multiple crypto assets. While institutional clients have access to an advanced platform for both trading and securing crypto assets.
- Retail users: Coinbase offers a “safe, trusted, and easy-to-use platform to invest, store, spend, earn, and use crypto assets.”
- Institutions: Coinbase offers a “one-stop shop for accessing crypto markets through advanced trading and custody technology, built on top of a robust security infrastructure.”
- Ecosystem partners: developers, and merchants can build applications on top of the platform, and participate actively in the protocols part of the Coinbase offering.
Technological Model: Core Technology and R&D Management
Coinbase’s technological model is based on its end-to-end financial infrastructure, where customers can buy dozens of crypto assets, secure them and find various options to store these assets.
Coinbase ecosystem combines retail customers, institutions, and other partners (like merchants and developers). The tech platform focuses on cybersecurity, compliance, and expansion of Blockchain protocols over time.
To understand how the Coinbase value proposition is enhanced by its platform, you need to understand the nature of the Crypto asset markets, which (as Coinbase emphasizes) “natively digital, real-time, and operate globally on a 24/7/365 basis.”
Coinbase stresses out that the “always-on” nature of the crypto economy (crypto assets are traded 24/7) requires a technical infrastructure able to support this ongoing demand for crypto assets. Thus, Coinbase focused its efforts over the years in making this platform as stable and safe as possible, which drives a tremendous amount of direct traffic (people accessing it directly via its web apps or mobile apps).
Indeed, let’s remember that one of the critical issues that former crypto exchange platforms had encountered were all related to security, scalability, and regulatory compliance, all things that Coinbase has been able to successfully address so far.
One key challenge/element/value of the retail platform is to enable users to potentially trade a wide number of crypto assets. Therefore, security coupled with scalability (and compliance) is key element for the retail platform’s success (Image Source: Coinbase S-1).
The main features that make Coinbase’s platform successful (so far) are:
- Send & Receive.
Over time, becoming the “one-stop-shop” for crypto assets becomes critical.
The main components of the institutional platform comprise:
- Investing, which enables institutional investors to perform complex trades, as institutional customers can use over-the-counter, or OTC, trading desks, with a volume-based pricing.
- Send & Receive Store, to provide a “highly secure cold storage solution.” Indeed, one of the key issues of transactions outside the Blockchain is that if hacked and the private keys stolen there is no way to trace them back. Thus, this service addresses one of the key weaknesses that trading crypto assets present.
- Staking (a specific form of validation for some blockchain protocols).
- Borrow & Lend.
Some key elements of the partners’ platform comprise:
- Distribution: Coinbase has a platform with over forty million verified users (as of March 2021). These can be leveraged to sponsor new crypto projects. For instance, Coinbase has been implementing a system of e-learning and gamification, to reward users of crypto assets if completing certain actions (like following short lectures or downloading the app).
- Build. Coinbase also offers the infrastructure for developers to build tools like, Coinbase Analytics (analytical tool licensed to law enforcement and financial institutions to monitor blockchain transactions – customer personal data is kept private); Rosetta which enables developers to build applications for different blockchains by using a single standard; USDC: a crypto asset backed 1:1 by a U.S. dollar.
- Pay enabling merchants to accept cryptocurrency payments in a fully decentralized way.
Coinbase has been capable of building a solid platform in the first wave of the crypto economy. In the future, new protocols and crypto assets might become key players in the industry. Being able to anticipate or at least quickly adopt these crypto assets will be a key ingredient for the future success of Coinbase. As part of the platform’s success is given by the fact it trades the successful assets from the crypto-economy.
Distribution Model and Go-to-market strategy
Coinbase follows the flywheel pattern as a platform business model where its customer base (made of retail users, institutions, and partners) improves the platform and amplifies it. In fact, as retail users go to Coinbase to discover the prices of crypto assets (Coinbase has built a solid and user-friendly discovery and search engine for crypto assets), they might also prefer it as the go-to platform for transactions. From there, institutions and partners attracted by a large number of retail customers join in.
The Coinbase flywheel in action: where more retail users get to the platform given its known brand and organic traffic (driven by its user-friendly search/discovery engine for crypto assets), the more those same users might transact on the platform. Thus, driving more partners to develop apps on top of Coinbase, while at the same time offering new products and protocols, therefore, further attracting retail users.
- Adding more customers by increasing adoption of products/crypto-assets for its key customers, by leveraging growth marketing, product development, and all the other key digital channels for continuous growth.
- Expanding the available assets on the platform, thus making it more valuable for all customers and partners.
- Launching new products.
Coinbase’s main metrics or KPIs are measured based on the number of verified users on the platforms, the monthly transaction each user is performing through the platform. The assets which are stored and traded on the platform, together with the trading volume. Based on these transactions, Coinbase will earn its income, thus generating more or less income. That is why Coinbase’s success is also tied to the public’s continuous interest in the crypto-economy (Data source: Coinbase S-1).
Coinbase’s revenue model primarily moves around three main streams: transaction revenues, which by far represent the largest income source, subscription, and services revenue, and other revenues (Crypto asset sales revenue and Corporate interest income) – data source: Coinbase S-1.
Coinbase Revenue model moves around a few key streams:
- Transaction revenues: made when each transaction is processed through the platform. Most of them come from retail investors.
- Subscription and services revenues: comprising a set of subscription services offered on the platform and custodial fees. In addition to earning campaign revenues and interest income.
- And other revenues comprising crypto-asset sales revenues and corporate interest income.
The major driver of revenues for Coinbase has been in 2020 the transaction revenues, which increased by over six hundred million, primarily driven by a massive increase in trading volume, which more than doubled (as interest in cryptocurrencies was awakened again between 2019-2020). Each time a transaction is processed via Coinbase the platform will earn revenue as a fee from the transaction. Coinbase applies a volume-based pricing approach where transaction fees will vary based on the trading volume. In general, the transaction fee is collected from the customer at the time the transaction is executed.
Retail transaction revenues
In 2020, the transaction fees from retail investors represented the majority of the fees generated by Coinbase.
Retail transaction revenues
In 2020, the transaction fees from institutional investors represented a minority of the fees generated by Coinbase.
Subscriptions and services
The other source of revenues is subscription and services comprising Store, Stake, and Borrow & Lend, especially to reduce dependence on transaction revenues (highly dependent on short-term trading volume). Other custodial fee revenue (given the increase in the number of customers and the value of crypto assets held under custody within the Coinbase Store product).
Custodial fee revenue
Coming from a dedicated secure cold storage solution to customers, which generates fees for Coinbase, based on the value of the crypto assets held in the storage solution. The fee is collected on a monthly basis.
For blockchain-based on proof-of-stake, Coinbase gets the reward by creating or validating blocks on the network. Thus, these get validated, thus making Coinbase earn a reward (paid in the crypto asset validated via the platform).
A Proof of Stake (PoS) is a form of consensus algorithm used to achieve agreement across a distributed network. As such it is, together with Proof of Work, among the key consensus algorithms for Blockchain protocols (like Ethereum’s Casper protocol). Proof of Stake has the advantage of the security, reduced risk of centralization, and energy efficiency.
Earn campaign revenue
This part of the platform offers crypto asset issuers the chance to amplify and market their products via Coinbase. Through specific actions (like completions of video tutorials, quizzes, and more) crypto-asset issuers can get their product known, while the users will receive in exchange the crypto asset for free, and Coinbase gets fees as a result of the transactions on the platform (the crypto assets distributed to users).
Interest income and corporate interest income
This is the interest earned on customers’ custodial funds, that the company keeps together with cash and cash equivalents.
Other subscription and services revenues
Primarily including revenue from early-stage services.
In some cases, Coinbase might fulfill customer transactions using its own crypto assets. This happens when the transaction volume might spike. In that case, Coinbase records the full transaction as revenues, and the transaction value not related to fees as an operating expense. Others also increased substantially driven by the sales of Coinbase crypto assets.
These comprise all the costs to run the platform, such as the costs associated with the processing of trades and wallet services. All the costs incurred for account verifications fees, fees to process transactions on blockchain networks, and fees paid to other payment processors are part of the transaction expenses.
Technology and development
These comprise all the costs related to maintaining and developing the platform, including website hosting and other infrastructure costs, together with costs to develop new products and services.
Sales and marketing
General and administrative
These include all the costs related to legal, finance, compliance, human resources, customer experience, and support operations, executive management, and other administrative services.
The company’s profitability highly depends on keeping a high trading volume, in part driven by the interest in crypto assets. Part of this profitability has been smoothing (since 2018) by subscription services. Simultaneously, massive investments toward the platform and the high general and administrative costs drive profitability down.
In 2020, most of the cash was provided by the custodial funds kept by Coinbase. In short, these are funds held for customers. Indeed, by December 2020, of the over three billion in cash from operating activities, $2.7 billion was related to custodial funds.
These funds are kept on dedicated accounts and are restricted for use.
Putting it all together
- Coinbase is a digital platform for trading and storing cryptocurrencies. It makes money via transaction fees, subscriptions, commissions earned on custodial funds, and interests earned on these.
- Coinbase tech platform is both a search and discovery engine for crypto assets. Its underlying platform also offers tools for developers, merchants, or other institutional partners.
- The platform’s flywheel is developed around its variety in crypto assets, attracting retail users attracted by a known brand, safe and secure for trading.
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